Although Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh community where the white nationalist terrorist attack on the Tree of Life synagogue occurred, has been described in the media over the past few days as a Jewish enclave, it is not just that. It is also Pittsburgh’s largest and most ethnically diverse neighborhood. Combined, over 26,000 people live in Squirrel Hill North and Squirrel Hill South—a sizable chunk of a city with just 300,000 people. (If that 300,000 number surprises you, you’re not alone. The Burgh is a city with a much bigger name than its actual population reflects. It’s essentially America’s biggest small town.)
It’s one of those neighborhoods that most Pittsburghers have a relationship with. Maybe you lived or still live there. Maybe you went or still go to daycare or school there. Maybe you’ve shopped or still shop there. Maybe you’ve eaten or still eat pizza there. Maybe you’ve belonged or still belong to the Jewish Community Center. Maybe (definitely, actually) you’ve spent or still spend countless Friday and Saturday nights at the Eat’n Park midnight buffet—one of the few places in the frustratingly sleepy city where late night food is available.
It also borders Oakland, which is where both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University sit, and many transplanted students and university employees have made Squirrel Hill their home.
The Atlantic’s Brentin Mock, a friend and fellow Pittsburgh resident, articulated this unique (for Pittsburgh) dynamic:
In Squirrel Hill, mobs of folks flood every weekend for pancakes and hash from Pamela’s, where presidents and celebrities make pilgrimages when visiting Pittsburgh. Yes, it’s a tourist trap, but one where the taste and quality of the food actually matches its reputation. The neighborhood is also where you can get some of the best Chinese cuisine not just in the city, but arguably in the entire Rust Belt, at restaurants such as Chengdu Gourmet, Sichuan Gourmet, and Taiwanese Bistro Cafe 33. It’s where folks squabble over whether Mineo’s or Aiello’s has the best or most authentic Italian-American pizza, and where any DJ worth any ounce of respect on their name goes digging for vinyl at Jerry’s.
About a mile up the road from the Tree of Life synagogue is Allderdice High School; rappers Wiz Khalifa and the late Mac Miller are alumni, along with many other of the city’s fiercest hip hop talents. Just last month, a bunch of them gathered for a vigil for Miller at a park not far from the synagogue that was the reference spot for his 2011 debut album Blue Slide Park. Throughout the area, you’ll find signs on the front lawns of many houses that read: “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” in English, Spanish and Arabic. This is literally Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Personally, of the dozens of predominately white neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, Squirrel Hill is the one I feel the least racial anxiety in. Of course, I’m not suggesting that it’s devoid of anti-blackness. My book actually begins with a racially charged thing that happened to my parents in Squirrel Hill when I was a kid. But I’m less concerned with dealing with any sort of racial antagonism there than I am in Morningside or Mount Washington or Bloomfield or Brookline.
Anyway, I know it’s only been two days since the terrorist attack on the Tree of Life and people need space to emote and think and feel and process. And that emoting and thinking and feeling and processing is messy as fuck. But this shit from Jeff Blattner in the Washington Post (“Pittsburghers treat each other as one community. We should all learn from them.”) is just so fucking bad, so fucking wrong and so fucking dangerous. This hagiographical-ass-shit just pretends that the Burgh is something that it ain’t. And a mass pretending—a collective delusion that things ain’t what they really are—doesn’t do shit but give the hollowest of props when brutal truths about our city and our country and the amniotic fuckshit we’re all flailing in are the only thing that might save us from drowning.
Just tell the fucking truth. Don’t pretend like Pittsburgh is this singular lodestar for justice and progressive thought. Not in the same year that Antwon Rose was killed by a cop a few miles from the city limits for the crime of running away while black, and the progressive Pittsburgh mayor’s first public response to this news was “our name’s Bennett, and we ain’t in it.”
Don’t pretend like shit like “We didn’t always get along, but we saw ourselves as members of one community” when talking about the city ain’t science fucking fiction. Don’t pretend like the economic revitalization of the last decade—cited often in Blattner’s piece—doesn’t happen without pushing black Pittsburghers into the city’s crevices and margins, like dust bunnies swept into coat closets when guests are arriving, and don’t pretend like that ain’t what the Burgh has always done.
Don’t pretend like both sides of the political spectrum are equally culpable for what happened on Saturday, which is what happens when you write shit like, “Today we’re Red States and Blue States, flyover America and coastal elites. There are many reasons. Most important, cynical politicians and self-interested plutocrats have sought to foment hatred, division and resentment.”
Don’t fellate your sensibilities with ahistorical nostalgia conflating “Pittsburghers banding together for three hours every fall Sunday and summer Saturday to root for championship sports teams” with “Pittsburghers banding together”—which is exactly what the paragraph below does:
On Sundays, we worshipped together at the altar of the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose stadium was adorned with banners proclaiming “Franco’s Italian Army” (National Football League Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris was born to an African American father and Italian mother) and “Dobre Shunka,” the Polish “Good Ham” nickname of another Hall of Famer, linebacker Jack Ham. Sports commentator Howard Cosell once said, “When you play Pittsburgh, you play the whole city.” The Pirates’ theme song during its World Series-winning 1979 season: Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.” We were all on the same team.
Don’t pretend like Robert Bowers, the man who allegedly committed the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in America history, wasn’t born and raised and molded and taught in this same fucking Pittsburgh.
Using this tragedy, this terror, this massacre, as a platform to pretend how special and how especially together Pittsburgh is just ain’t it. We’re all fucked up. Every American city. Each square foot of American soil. Perhaps some are less fucked up than others. But if you’re shin-deep in shit then maybe you shouldn’t tout yourself as #goals for those up to their knees. Blattner’s piece is the sort of useless thing that people write and say and think and read and commission when pretty and sparkling lies are preferred to dirty and messy truths. This is less an article than a pack of Crest Teeth Whitening Strips.
Pittsburgh is my city, my love, my home. It’s where I was born, it’s where I was raised, it’s where I met my wife, it’s where I intend to raise my children. Like most Pittsburghers, I am devastated by what happened Saturday morning. I am mourning. I am furious. I am terrified.
And because it’s my city, because it’s my love, because it’s my home, because it’s where I was raised, because it’s where I met my wife, because it’s where I intend to raise my children, and because it’s where I’ve chosen to live and plan to keep on living, I am tired of these fucking lies. They don’t honor the city. They don’t honor the dead. They just make you feel a tiny bit better until the next one.